When President George W. Bush first met Vladimir Putin, he seemed smitten, describing the still-new Russian leader as “very straightforward and trustworthy,” even claiming he got “a sense of his soul.”
A certain Democratic senator from Delaware had a very different reaction.
“I don’t trust Putin,” Joe Biden said in the days after the June 2001 Bush-Putin summit in Slovenia. “Hopefully, the president was being stylistic rather than substantive.”
Twenty years later, Washington has come around firmly to Biden’s assessment. Now president, Biden is set to meet Putin for their first bilateral summit since taking office, amid a swirl of recriminations over Russia’s election meddling and alleged cyberattacks in the United States, along with its sway and aggression in countries like Belarus and Ukraine.
It won’t be the pair’s first time face-to-face. They saw each other 10 years ago when Biden was vice president; he claims to have then told Putin he didn’t think the Russian had a soul. The upcoming June 16 summit in Geneva is unlikely to be a particularly friendly affair, but U.S. officials and their allies outside the administration say there’s no avoiding dealing with the Kremlin — no matter how distasteful it is to sit down with a man Biden once agreed was a “killer.”
Biden will see Putin after holding multiple summits with America’s European allies. “We are standing united to address Russia’s challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine,” Biden wrote in a weekend column in The Washington Post. “And there will be no doubt about the resolve of the United States to defend our democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests.”
One thing is unlikely to have changed since Bush met with the Russian leader back in 2001: Biden still does not trust Putin.
If anything, Biden’s public comments about Putin over the past two decades, as well as accounts from current and former U.S. officials, suggest that the U.S. president harbors a deep, lasting skepticism of the former KGB officer who found himself atop the Kremlin at the turn of the century.
“There’s nothing Putin can do to make [the president] like him,” one former U.S. official familiar with Russia policy said. “Biden sees Putin as someone who is rational, thuggish — someone who is not confined by any sense of morality or concern over human rights or anything of that nature … just a cold, hard realistic assessment of the man.”
‘A persistently difficult relationship’
Some of Biden’s political opponents have questioned his decision to invite Putin to meet at all.
“We’re rewarding Putin with a summit?” asked Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska in the hours after the gathering was first announced. Sasse said Biden should be “treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people” instead of “legitimizing his actions with a summit.”
“This is weak,” he added.
Biden administration officials counter that a meeting with the man who calls the shots in an adversarial, nuclear-armed country is squarely in America’s national interest. But they’ve also tried to limit public expectations of the summit.
Do not expect any major agreements from the day-long get-together, officials say. Rather, both sides will discuss an array of disputes and areas of potential cooperation. Biden will tell Putin what response to expect if he tries to undermine the United States through election interference or other means, American officials say. Perhaps the most critical agenda item is “strategic stability” — a term that typically refers to nuclear arms control.
What Biden is not seeking is a “reset” of the relationship, at least not in the way that term — fairly or unfairly — has come to be defined in the U.S.-Russian lexicon since the Barack Obama administration used it. In other words, he’s not willing to let bygones be bygones and start afresh. Instead, Biden says he seeks a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia.
“This is not 2009,” a senior Biden administration official said. “We do not harbor any illusions about a broad basis of cooperation between our two countries, which I think animated some of the approach back then. We view this [summit] as an important tool to manage what will be a persistently difficult relationship.”
‘A single man’
Biden has long told his colleagues: “All foreign policy is an extension of personal relationships.” That doesn’t mean he trusts or even likes everyone with whom he has a relationship, people who know Biden say.
The “jury is still out on Mr. Putin and his commitment to democratic rule or to nonproliferation,” Biden said in February 2000, when Putin was still Russia’s acting president and pursuing a heavy-handed war in the Chechnya region. “It is in our interest to remain closely engaged with Moscow, but if Mr. Putin’s government stays too far from the democratic road, or purposely helps other countries to develop weapons of mass destruction, we must be prepared to reevaluate our relationship.”
More than a year later, and days after questioning Bush’s glowing comments on Putin in June 2001, Biden again expressed reservations.
“The president’s first meeting with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, appeared to be positive and constructive and a start for a new chapter in Russian-American relations,” he said. “But I’d caution the administration against being excessively optimistic about Mr. Putin and his intentions. Russia has exhibited a troubling pattern of less than democratic behavior since Putin took office.”
By that point, Putin had already moved to strengthen his authority in Russia at the expense of its governors and was raising pressure on independent media. His efforts to stamp out separatists in Chechnya also appeared especially heavy-handed.
In 2004, Biden joined more than 100 foreign policy specialists in signing a letter to Bush and European leaders that accused Putin of undermining democratic progress in Russia under the guise of fighting terrorism. In late 2006, as he weighed a run for president, Biden raised questions about whether Russia belonged in the G-8. That grouping of countries suspended Russia in 2014, after Putin invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.
“Russia is moving more and more toward an oligarchy here,” Biden told Fox News in the 2006 interview. “Putin is consolidating power. He’s been doing it for the last six years. I think that Russia is sliding further away from genuine democracy and a free-market system and more toward a command economy and the control of a single man.”
In August 2008, as Democratic presidential nominee Obama was considering naming him as his running mate, Biden visited the country of Georgia. The visit was designed to offer support to Georgia after Russia attacked the country to ostensibly defend two breakaway provinces. “I left the country convinced that Russia’s invasion of Georgia may be … one of the most significant events to occur in Europe since the end of communism,” Biden said in a statement. He called for the U.S. to send emergency aid to the country.
An ill-understood ‘reset’
It was somewhat surprising, then, when Biden took a different tack just a few weeks after he and Obama took office in 2009. In a speech to the Munich Security Conference, Biden declared, “It’s time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.”
Obama himself had used the term “reset” when discussing Russia in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” before taking office. Biden, though still a skeptic of Putin, had signed on to Obama’s desire to take a new approach to Russia. In more recent years, critics have derided the “reset” policy as hopelessly naïve. But Obama administration officials insist that at the time the idea made sense, and that they never defined “reset” as having a clean slate with Russia, despite what critics allege.
Biden’s speech calling for a reset, for example, acknowledged the two countries had serious differences. He criticized Moscow for its 2008 war with Georgia and said America “will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence.” But, as Biden explained in laying out the reset, “the United States and Russia can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide.”
There was another reason the Obama team pursued the reset. At the time, Russia was officially led by President Dmitry Medvedev, who appeared to have a fair amount of latitude and a more open demeanor than Putin, who still retained significant power. Thanks in part to Medvedev, the two countries managed to cooperate on several fronts, including inking the New START treaty.
During that first Obama term, Biden met face-to-face with Putin, who technically was Russia’s prime minister at the time.
In the March 2011 encounter in Moscow, Biden later told a journalist that he turned to Putin and said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” According to Biden, Putin smiled and replied, “We understand one another.”
Biden met with Russian opposition activists during that same visit, and he told them that it would be better for their country if Putin didn’t run for the presidency again. But Biden also gave a speech at Moscow State University, which, while mentioning areas of disagreement, including some human rights issues, nonetheless struck a broadly hopeful tone about America’s relationship with Russians as a people and their country as a whole.
“In the second decade of this new century, the United States and Russia no longer have good reason not to trust one another,” Biden said in the speech. “It’s legitimate to be skeptical as you are in dealing with any nation because their self-interest may be different to you. But it’s not — does not translate into: We cannot trust.”
Putin’s 2012 return to the Russian presidency essentially killed the reset. The Russian was spooked by major anti-government protests in late 2011 in which demonstrators alleged fraud in Russian parliamentary elections. Putin accused the United States, specifically then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of stoking the protests. Putin also was said to be rattled by the Arab spring movements and the U.S. role in ousting autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
Putin’s return to the presidency and subsequent crackdowns in Russia gave ammunition to Obama and Biden’s critics, who argued they’d been so eager to distinguish themselves from Bush that they’d misunderstood Putin. (Bush, according to various accounts, had privately soured on Putin over time.)
Biden has had only more reasons to distrust Putin in the past decade as Russia and the United States have clashed over everything from the war in Syria to Kremlin-backed interference in American elections.
During Obama’s second term, Biden led the U.S. response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, calling the Russian leader’s actions “nothing more than a land grab” in March 2014.
"President Putin has to make a simple, stark choice,” he said nearly a year later. “Get out of Ukraine, or face continued isolation and growing economic costs at home.” Putin didn’t heed the warning.
Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia during the Obama years and helped shape the administration’s reset policy, said Biden’s skepticism of Putin sharpened in part because he spent so much time in countries that felt threatened by the Kremlin. In fact, just a few months after giving his February 2009 speech calling for a reset with Russia, Biden visited Ukraine and Georgia, signaling to Moscow that all was not rosy.
“I think that [Biden] has a very accurate assessment of who Putin is, which is no sentimentality — he’s an autocrat, he’s repressive,” McFaul said. “And to Biden more than most, because he’s spent so much time in countries like Ukraine, he feels what it means to be attacked by Putin.”
Donald Trump’s arrival on the 2016 campaign trail alarmed Biden in part because of the Republican’s unorthodox efforts to curry favor with Putin. “We cannot elect a man who belittles our closest allies while embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin,” Biden said to one 2016 crowd.
Biden’s distrust of Putin doesn’t stem just from what he sees as the Russian leader’s efforts to literally redraw world maps or repress his own people. Over time, Biden has grown increasingly alarmed about the corruption that has come to characterize much of the Russian system under Putin. That has fueled Biden’s bigger worries about what he sees as a battle for our time, one between democratic systems and authoritarian ones.
Biden and co-author Michael Carpenter described the concerns in a 2018 Foreign Affairs essay titled “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin: Defending Democracy Against Its Enemies.” They discussed, for instance, how the Kremlin can direct Russian oligarch money to anti-establishment political candidates in other countries who go on to sow doubts about their democratic systems.
“Russia has managed to effectively export the corruption that has warped its own politics and economy — weaponizing it, in a sense, and aiming it at vulnerable societies elsewhere,” the two wrote.
Biden’s supporters would later be stunned by Trump’s efforts to paint Biden as personally corrupt in some of his dealings with Ukraine, a charge that has never been proven. Trump’s first impeachment revolved allegations he tried to pressure Ukraine into investigating Biden and his son’s involvement on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Earlier this month, Biden formally declared that fighting global corruption is “a core United States national security interest” and ordered federal agencies to make it a priority. More recently, Biden invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit Washington later this summer.
Ending the escalation
When he was asked earlier this year if he thought Putin was “a killer,” Biden didn’t hold back.
“Uh-huh. I do,” he said.
The comment caused waves. Putin, whose government is suspected in multiple cases of poisoning or otherwise assassinating dissidents and rivals, replied by ominously wishing the U.S. president good health.
Tensions eased enough that the two spoke in mid-April and Biden proposed the upcoming summit. At the same time, Biden warned Putin to expect U.S. sanctions. Two days later, he imposed a package of such penalties, targeting the Kremlin for alleged activities ranging from 2020 election interference to cyber hacking. The goal, Biden said, was a proportionate response, not an escalation of tensions.
The upcoming summit is a chance for both sides to lay out where each stands and where each wants to go — and that includes where the pair can cooperate, such as on ensuring that Iran doesn’t obtain nuclear weapons.
“The idea here is to set out the parameters for what can be a predictable, workman-like relationship between our two countries and avoid the kind of ramping up of tensions that have marked U.S.-Russia relations over the course of the last 15 or 20 years,” a second senior administration official said. “It’s not clear whether that’s going to be possible, whether Putin is prepared to play ball.”
Is it possible to trust what Putin says? “Of course you can’t,” the official said. “He’s taken unbelievable steps to undermine our democracy.”
Even if Biden is crystal clear about what the U.S. expects and hopes from its relationship with Russia, it’s not clear how much Putin will listen or even care in the long run.
After all, the Russian leader appears determined to outlast Biden. Earlier this year, the 68-year-old signed legislation that could keep him in power until 2036.